LIKE NIGHT AND DAY, the glitz and glamor of Florida's East Coast gives way to nature and nurture on the state's laidback Florida West Coast. Here, crowd-free white sand beaches stretch along the Gulf of Mexico; vast preserves are packed with more fish, bird, and wildlife than people; and smaller cities wear their history and charm on their sleeves.
All this makes Florida's Gulf Coast the place to have a ball when you want to get away from it all. Here is a sampling of 10 sweet spots, listed south to north, to navigate to this fall.
Buck Key Preserve, Captiva Island
Otters, bald eagles and stingrays â oh my! These and other sea, bird and marine life are the primary residents of this nearly two-mile-long barrier island adjacent to Captiva. Paddling is the best way to see these critters, plus explore tunnels of mangrove forests and dense hardwood hammocks that native peoples once called home. Kayaking is the most popular, yet paddle boarding is possible, too. You can go it alone; the four-mile-long Buck Key Paddle Trail is marked. Watersports companies also offer guided tours. Either way, plan for at least a two-hour trip.
Where to Dock: Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island
Walk on the wild side at this 6,400-plus acre wildlife refuge. Choose from three trails, all off scenic Wildlife Drive. Indigo is a four-mile loop where the Wildlife Education Boardwalk boasts scat and track replicas to easily identify critters that may have crossed paths. The 0.5-milk Wulfert Keys Trail leads to an overlook of San Carlos Bay where fishermen once crabbed. The Calusa Shell Mound Trail, true to name, is a 0.4-mile loop that circles seashell heaps left by ancient inhabitants. While the trails are delightfully off the beaten track, do pack a smartphone. QR iNature Trail Code signs along the way provide even more information about the refuge's sights.
Where to Dock: Sanibel Marina
Cayo Costa State Park, Lee County
Take a step into the past while enjoying the present on this island, located near Pine Island and west of Fort Myers, where you can socially distance on nearly nine miles of white sand beaches. Accessible only by boat, as well as kayaks and paddleboards available for rent, this was a favorite fishing ground of the early Calusa Indians. Archaeological digs here have unearthed shell mounds, bones and pottery. Today, saltwater fisherman can try their luck for tarpon, snook, snapper and pompano. Hiking, beach walking, shelling, swimming, snorkeling and birdwatching mean there's something here for everyone.
Where to Dock: Cayo Costa State Park
Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island
Big tarpon, and lots of them, are what you find at Boca Grande Pass, situated on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island State Park. This deep-water passage connects Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, and tarpon use this as a major maritime highway before and after spawning. It's no wonder this area is nicknamed the "Tarpon Capital of the World." Famous folks from Thomas Edison to George W. Bush have come here to drop a line. Catches average 90- to 130-pounds with 200-plus pounders not uncommon. Guides for hire can help turn a fishing trip into a catching experience.
Where to Dock: Boca Grande Marina
Man's best friend can find a place to romp in this seaside city located 20 miles south of Sarasota. Paw Park, a fenced play yard with nearby picnic tables, benches and showers, leads straight to the only beach in the county where dogs can run unleashed. You find lots for two-footed visitors to enjoy, too. Venice is known as the "Shark Tooth Capital" of the World. In fact, Brohard Park Beach, next to the Paw Park and south of Venice Pier, is one of the best places in town to hunt for these treasured teeth. For the best luck, go to where the waves break and scoop up the beach sand with a strainer or by hand. These fossilized fangs range in size from the length of a grain of rice to the diameter of a softball.
Where to Dock: The Crow's Nest Restaurant & Marina
Cortez, Manatee County
Maritime history buffs will want to visit this last of the traditional fishing villages on Florida's Gulf Coast. The Florida Maritime Museum, set in a restored 1912-built schoolhouse in the Cortez Nature Preserve, displays everything from old-time chronometers and barometers to historic boats and ship models, cork lures and hand-woven nets, and even stoneware moonshine jugs from the Prohibition Era. Make your own history. Several outfits here, in Sarasota Bay and Palma Sola Bay, offer half (four-hour), three-quarter (six-hour), and full-day (eight-hour) charter fishing trips. Inshore in the fall, expect to catch redfish and black drum, while offshore kingfish and wahoo are biting. November starts trout season -- including a good run of five-pound plus "gators."
Where to Dock: Cortez Village Marina (Formerly Bradenton Boat Club)
Anna Maria Island, Manatee County
The vibe is charming old-style Florida in the small resort city of Anna Maria, located at the tip of this seven-mile-long island 12 miles west of Bradenton. Pine Avenue, in the heart of town, boasts a plethora of quaint shops, galleries and eateries. The Historical Society Museum is here too, as is the 1911-built, nearly 700-foot long City Pier. From here, watch fishermen cast lines, boats cruise in and out of Tampa Bay, pelicans plunge into the water for their dinner, and spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
Where to Dock: Bradenton Beach Marina
The arts are alive in this quirky artist community located five miles west of St. Petersburg on Boca Ciega Bay. The Gulfport Art Walk takes place on Beach Boulevard, on the first Friday and third Saturday of the month, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. year-round. There are local authors and artists, watercolorists, and wearable-makers, plus hand-made candles, soaps, floral pieces, and more for sale. The culinary arts are something to savor here too. Every Tuesday, Gulfport Fresh Market is notable for its fresh produce and seafood, baked breads, and local spice mixes. Beyond this, the city has won awards for its smorgasbord selection of restaurants, many of which serve fresh-caught seafood.
Where to Dock: City of Gulfport Municipal Marina
Main Street USA is the charming description of what you find in the center of this historic Gulf Coast city. No big box or name brand stores here. Instead, this walkable thoroughfare is full of shops selling custom jewelry, antiques, furnishings and art of all types. Stop to wet your whistle one block off the west side of Main at The Brewery, Florida's oldest microbrewery. The city's name, coined by early Scottish settlers, comes from the Gaelic term for Edinburgh. Enjoy a taste of the Scots while here. The Dunedin Golf Club offers a challenging 18-hole course. Kids can play on "Nessie," a larger than life-size version of the Loch Ness Monster located in Dunedin's water-filled sprayground north of Main Street. The pier at sunset is breathtaking.
Where to Dock: Marker 1 Marina
The name of this Gulf Coast seaport sounds like fishing is the main game in town. Yet, there's much more. Located less than an hour north of St. Petersburg, this is also the sponge capital of the world. Greek immigrants more than a century ago introduced the collection technique of diving for sponges. The heyday of harvesting these prized multicell animals is long gone, but you can soak up the past via a visit to the Sponge Docks & Sponge Museum. Local shops sell sponges, too. A Greek influence remains from the Mediterranean-style architecture in some parts of town to the spanakopita (spinach pie), avgolemono soup (lemon-flavored chicken soup), and baklava (honey and nut pastry). And yes, there are tarpon aplenty here, too.
Where to Dock: Turtle Cove Marina